Eloquent Bruckner at the Heart of Rattle/Berlin at Carnegie Hall

United StatesUnited States  Debussy, Dvořák, Schoenberg, Elgar, Bruckner, Mahler: Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 23/24/25.2.12 (BH)

Concert I
: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1891-1894)
Dvořák: The Golden Spinning-Wheel, Op. 109 (1896)
Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 (1899; orch. 1917; rev. 1943)
: Variations on an Original Theme, “Enigma,” Op. 36 (1898-1899)

Concert II
: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (1887-1896; new critical edition based on the editions of Alfred Orel and Leopold Nowak, edited by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, 2000)

Concert III
: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection” (1888-1894; rev. 1903)

In a trio of concerts at Carnegie Hall – all magnificent and one astounding – Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic showed decisively why they are considered one of the most electric conductor-orchestra pairings in the world. Yes, I wish they had brought even a single contemporary piece – their 2007 visit brought works by Adès, Kurtág and Magnus Lindberg – but there was still much to enjoy, and to contemplate.

Opening the three nights was principal flute Emanuel Pahud, whose guileless pianissimo tone seeming to emerge from somewhere far beyond the stage, floating through Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Shaping the ensemble, Rattle’s hands looked as if he were holding doves, as the orchestra’s warmth flooded the hall. But Rattle never stands still; he varies the sound for different composers. He has been very successful in replacing Herbert von Karajan’s sleek and sensual gloss with a texture more mutable – even more edgy when needed. Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning-Wheel, buzzing with Czech folk rhythms, was a case in point: delivered with the same virtuosity but a completely different vibe – just a little rawer, but not in the sense of “under-rehearsed.

Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht received a huge string contingent – roughly sixty players – with dimuendos trailing off like wisps of vapor disappearing at sunrise, and some ravishing pizzicatos. But perhaps the best came last, a stirring Elgar “Enigma” Variations, done so passionately and with such generosity it made me proud to be a Brit – until I remembered that I’m not. The range of colors and emotions Rattle drew was enormous, from the grave elegance of the opening, to the juicily bombastic fourth variation, the lightning textures of the seventh, or the glorious unfolding of the ninth (“Nimrod”). This big-hearted reading might have made Barbirolli proud.

The real news came in the second concert, an astonishing recalibration of Bruckner, and by far the angriest, most heaven-storming version of the Ninth Symphony I have ever heard. Conventional wisdom characterizes Bruckner’s final essay as serene and contemplative, but Rattle – in the U.S. premiere of the 2011 Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca revision – had other ideas entirely. This was a terrifying performance – the climaxes like blinding bursts of light – with the Berlin players tearing into their parts like wolves who haven’t found prey in weeks. With the added fourth movement finale, Rattle’s brilliance was to completely rethink the Adagio’s context; the final complex chord near the end burned as hot as the sun.

For the finale I have to agree with my colleague, Stan Metzger, in his eloquent assessment: one hearing is not enough to decisively gauge its success. My initial thought was, “Fine, sounds very Brucknerian – but slightly anticlimactic,” coming after the persuasive, frightening intensity of the Adagio, and when one considers the well-wrought, discursive finales of say, the composer’s Seventh and (especially) the Eighth. Themes are skillfully woven together (including a quote from Bruckner’s own Te Deum), culminating in a shower of bronzed chords of the kind that the composer created with such seeming ease. I must add awe for the audience and its concentration; as Rattle kept his hands aloft after the final glowing chord, silence ruled for a good ten seconds – an eternity in Carnegie Hall – before the praise began raining down.

Part of Sir Simon’s initial success was made conducting Mahler’s Second Symphony; his 1990 recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra remains a classic. In 1997, I heard him conduct the piece with the Philadelphia Orchestra – also at Carnegie – with an ensemble so large that the stage had to be extended by some ten feet.

On the final night of this three-concert stand, Rattle showed that he still has much to say about the score. Again creating an unusual context, he prefaced Mahler with three fascinating works for chorus and orchestra by Hugo Wolf: “Frühlingschor” from Manuel Venegas, “Elfenlied” (with soprano Camilla Tilling and words by Shakespeare) and most fascinating of all, “Der Feuerreiter,” written the same year as the Mahler, using the chorus in a masterful evocation of fire. If these generous offerings only whetted one’s appetite for the program’s second half, anyone who admires Wolf’s melodic gifts was surely not disappointed.

Conducting without a score (as he did all three nights), Sir Simon showed welcome creativity in the Mahler. As in his Birmingham recording, at the end of the massive first movement he let the final cascading octaves unfold at a shockingly relaxed pace, as if an ancient monolith were toppling and crashing to the ground in slow motion. The second movement showed great patience, and the middle Scherzo – demonic as it can be, and for some, should be – was quieter, more introverted and perhaps even more disturbing. Bernarda Fink used her lucid mezzo-soprano to fine, simply-sung effect in the “Urlicht,” after which Rattle hurled those onstage into the finale.

The explosive opening was one of many during the last half-hour when I could feel the hall’s floor vibrating; at times, one could only marvel at the Berliners’ expertise evoking Mahler’s vast dynamic range. In some moments of extreme repose, just shy of silence, Rattle stood on the podium hardly moving, and the audience – as in the Bruckner the previous night – was equally focused and quiet. Some of the most startling moments came in the offstage instrumental effects, some of which were done with a single door opened to hear musicians out in the hallway, while others were scattered throughout the room. At one point I looked onstage for a set of chimes before realizing the percussionist was in one of the tiers, all the way in the back. It felt as if the entire outside world had been invited to join in.

The Westminster Symphonic Choir (140 voices) made the most of its entrances, alternately delicate and rugged, and Rattle urged the combined forces into final pages of great luminosity. If the applause began quicker than after that awestruck final moment of the Bruckner, one could hardly blame the audience for wanting to thank Rattle and the musicians. This is what a great orchestra – guided by a great thinker – should sound like.

Bruce Hodges